Four-hour drive for a colonoscopy? What VA privatization warnings ignore

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WASHINGTON — When 55-year-old Coast Guard veteran David McCray needed a colonoscopy, the Department of Veterans Affairs told him he would have to drive two hours each way from his home to a VA hospital in Denver — even though multiple private-sector options are closer, as is an Air Force hospital.

He said the VA told him he and his wife could drive to the Denver VA in the evening, stay in the emergency room overnight, then he could get the test the following morning and his wife could drive him home afterward.

“I’m like, are you kidding me? This doesn’t make any sense,” he said.

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So McCray called up Sen. Michael Bennet’s office the first time it happened in 2012 and the second time in 2016. Both times, the Colorado Democrat intervened, and the VA allowed McCray instead to go to the Air Force facility 45 minutes from his home.

His case — the fact that a veteran would need a U.S. senator to get workable colonoscopy appointments — helps illustrate the realities of what veterans face as the VA struggles to meet the needs of some 9 million among their ranks and as a heated political battle unfolds in Washington over the agency’s future.

President Trump said he fired David Shulkin as VA secretary because he wasn’t moving quickly enough to ensure veterans have more flexibility to get VA-sponsored care in the private sector. Shulkin equated the administration’s stance as a push toward “privatization,” a “political issue aimed at rewarding select people and companies with profits, even if it undermines care for veterans.”

The issue is now central to the confirmation of Trump’s pick to take over the agency, White House physician and Navy Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., has already circulated a petition to supporters calling on his Senate colleagues to oppose the nomination unless Jackson pledges to reject the “moral abomination” of privatizing VA health care. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said he expects such a pledge and lambasted any “effort to use America’s veterans to line the pockets of wealthy corporations.”

But such rhetoric glosses over the predicament currently facing the VA — and the veterans like McCray who depend on the agency for health care.

More than 700,000 veterans still are waiting longer than a month for medical appointments. The agency hasn’t been able to hire and retain enough medical workers to treat them — some 35,000 positions remain open.

Many VA facilities are more than 50 years old and collectively need billions of dollars in repairs and upgrades. The bureaucracy has ballooned. Seven different programs, all with their own regulations, govern veterans’ ability to get private sector care. One of them, the so-called Choice program, will run out of money in several weeks.

Congress has been considering a bipartisan solution — investing money in the existing VA while also giving veterans options to go to private doctors when the VA can’t meet their needs. It would smooth out the rules and combine the private care programs into one.

And it would include an asset review to determine which VA medical facilities are worth repairing, where new ones might be needed and where others might be shuttered and private-sector care provided.

It had been poised to pass as part of the spending bill Trump signed into law last month. But House Democrats balked, and without their support, it was dropped from the bipartisan bill and the legislation remains stuck.

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